December 2010

Science Focus: Ajit Varki

A look at ASBMB member Ajit Varki and how he uses his research on the biochemistry, molecular biology and genetics of sialic acids to answer broader questions about human origins, disease and evolution. (Titled "Science of Sialic Acids" in print version.)

Ajit VarkiIt’s not uncommon for scientists to shift their research focus in new and different directions during the course of their careers, whether to separate themselves from their mentors or to follow up on unexpected discoveries, which sometimes results in unusual research trajectories.

Even so, in 1975, when Ajit Varki first set foot on U.S. soil to pursue his interests in hematology research, he couldn’t possibly have envisioned that someday he would be taking a sabbatical at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center to learn about chimpanzees or requesting fossil samples of Neanderthals while at the same time emerging as a leading expert in glycobiology. He also never imagined that his work would be recognized by such honors as election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. 

But it’s a journey Varki is thrilled to have made. Currently a distinguished professor in the departments of medicine and cellular and molecular medicine at the University of California, San Diego, as well as co-director of both the UCSD/Salk Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny and the Glycobiology Research and Training Center, Varki studies the biochemistry, molecular biology and genetics of sialic acids, a diverse family of glycans, while using that information to answer broader questions about human origins, disease and evolution.

“I could not have written a better script for myself,” he says. “I can keep doing basic research in the ASBMB mold but also apply that to answer philosophical questions like, ‘What makes a human a human?’ while studying the implications for human disease.”

Unconventional Origins

Ajit Varki, whose own origins trace to Kerala in southwest India (along the fabled spice coast that Columbus was trying to reach in his journeys), recalls wanting to be a physician from a very early age; thus, he developed strong academic interests, particularly in biology. “Having two rather famous grandfathers (Pothan Joseph, a renowned Indian journalist and newspaper editor, and A. M. Varki, who founded one of Southern India’s first English-medium colleges) greatly raised the stakes on performance expectations in my childhood, though generally in a positive way,” he says.

The positive reinforcement helped, driving him to be the top student from Bishop Cotton Boys’ School Bangalore, often called the “Eton of the East,” and from Christian Medical College at Vellore, one of the leading medical schools in India. “Although my first love was medicine and I even spent a year working at a small rural hospital after graduation, my exposure to scientific research at CMC convinced me to try a career as a physician-scientist,” he says. However, India’s research infrastructure was not as well developed— Varki says he was fortunate to attend one of the few Indian schools that blended research, science and medicine— and he knew he had to leave the country to pursue further research training.

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Research on the sialic acids has been an exciting area for many years for which many outstanding scientists have contributed. The research by Dr. Varki has been a model for many of us in the field. Edward L. Kean



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